Through the Glass Darkly

Roger Allam is an actor worth seeing. When it was announced he would be playing the Edwardian patriarch at the centre of a glass manufacturing dynasty in this revival of Githa Sowerby’s ‘Rutherford and Son’ it was definitely added to the bucket list to see.

Written in 1912 and set against her own family background in glass-making, Githa Sowerby was lauded when the play was premiered under the playwright’s name of G.K. Sowerby. When it became clear the author was a woman, the glowing tributes took a more patronising “who would have expected a woman to write this” tone. And in many ways, that is fitting for this play with its clear undercurrents (and overcurrents) of feminism against a backdrop of Edwardian capitalism.

The story is simple enough. The patriarch, John Rutherford, has run a successful glass-makers for a generation or more, but increased competition from improved mechanisation means he has to finds ways of making ends meet. He is consumed by the business and his two sons and daughter become increasingly and desperately marginalised by his authoritarian drive to save the family firm. If only he had put as much energy into saving the family.

One son, Richard, is a vicar and seeks his father’s permission to take up another living with better prospects away from the family home. His second son John, who lives with his wife Mary and baby son in the family home, believes he has invented a new formula which will dramatically cut costs in the glass-making process. And his spinster daughter, Janet, has developed a clandestine relationship with Rutherford’s trusted foreman. A trusted foreman who will help Rutherford steal John’s formula, and is then sacked – his relationship with Janet having been discovered.

None of his children can be allowed to get in the way of the firm. Or the supposed respectability which the family name now has. “My children can’t go back” is his mantra yet he cannot see that each in their way want to go forward. As each family member in turn is cut adrift Mary, the daughter-in-law, ends up alone with Rutherford. And now this quiet voice of reason takes centre stage to play out the transition of power from his family to hers.

This is a powerful play about power and family. Whilst some of the stark examples that Sowerby illustrates may be less familiar to us today, it still resonates as a timeless piece of drama. Set in the main room of the household, the set is initially partially hidden by a curtain of water as a thunderstorm breaks across the city. As the rain ends the whole set slides several metres to the front of the stage, bringing the audience into the house. Part of the drama. The beautifully sung, haunting folk music which preceded the curtain and was again heard at the interval set the mood for the emotions which the excellent cast delivered throughout. Allam was outstanding.

At around 2 hours 35 minutes (including an interval) this play, directed by Polly Findley, rattled along. Set in the northeast, the accents occasionally needed hard listening, but I did wonder if one well-known theatre critic who pompously declared them “impenetrable” would have said the same of Chaucer’s English. This was gritty realism. When first performed it would have been exactly contemporary with its age and a clarion call for change, which is still to be fulfilled completely 100 years on.

This is the first play by Sowerby that I have seen. Although her other works didn’t receive such critical acclaim, it would be interesting to see any of them revived.

The Lyttelton, National Theatre until 3 August 2019

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